Confessions of a designer

Recounting the downward spiral and early recovery phase of a designer’s switch to the Windows operating system.

My name is Doug, and I’m a recovering Windows user. A couple of years ago, I made the made the switch in the opposite direction of Apple’s latest campaign. I can even recount how the downward spiral started.

[image: Apple's apple] I was a die-hard Mac fanatic. One of those arrogant designers who shrugged off Microsoft’s market share and expected 76% of the computing world to revolve around my operating system of choice. If you weren’t on Mac, you didn’t matter.

[thumbnail image: Macintosh Classic] The legacy goes back to a 1 Mhz Apple II+ that my Dad bought while I was still in junior high. Apple introduced me to the digital world of green monochrome screens, BASIC, and the creation of horrible continuous-paper banners created with PrintShop and a dot matrix printer. I began working with an 8Mhz/1MB RAM Mac Classic made publicly available in a student government office my freshman year of college. I plunked down my own chunk of change on a Mac Centris 610 two years later, which quickly paid for itself with freelance design work.

[thumbnail image: Macintosh PowerBook G3] Wired bought a small group of PowerBook G3s for us at the end of 1997, and I fell in love with the Mac design aesthetic. A sleek black notebook with subtle curves, and one of the first working portable DVD drives. It was a beautiful machine worthy of showing off everywhere I went. Six months later, I upgraded my outdated Centris for a beige PowerMac G3 desktop, two months before the bondi-blue G3’s came out.


My Mac idolatry began to wane the following year. My days were filled with system crashes, extension conflicts, frozen applications just before saving, and font manager nightmares. Wired MIS began to drop support for Macs, so designers were left to fix their own problems. Lycos had swallowed up Wired by that time, and everyone back in Boston was using Windows. It was too painful to share files or communicate cross-country with a company who knew nothing but 95 and NT.

In August of 1999, I stepped out into the streets and bought my first dose of the dark side. Well, sort of. The cool part of the dark side. If any designer ever owns a Windows machine, it’s at least partially understandable when the dealer is Sony and the vice is Vaio. Such was my case, but this purchase was a bad hit — this super-slim Vaio Z505 ran Windows 98. A horrible introduction to a recreational use of Windows. I could suddenly share files and what not with my Boston colleagues, but I was greeted on a daily basis with the BSoD, and could never successfully enter standby or hibernation modes. I’m sure both Sony and Microsoft share the blame for that one.

[thumbnail image: Sony Vaio R505] The following year, I eBayed my original Vaio in exchange for higher grade stuff. A newly redesigned dockable Vaio R505 in the same series, this time running Win2000. And this is where my addiction grew. I finally learned what Windows was all about. Why it was used. Why Microsoft had such high market share. Win2k was stable.

I never crashed when using it.

My fonts loaded correctly every time. I could reliably collaborate with teams in Boston via NetMeeting. I studied the OS inside and out, and learned how to make it mine. I could push pixels around in Photoshop and have the power of IIS under the hood on the same machine.

Slippery Slope

ASP was a welcome addition to the tired HTML and SSI tricks of this designer. I could suddenly create dynamic pages and serve them directly from my laptop. Entire design prototypes could be built using one or two templates. I learned Windows server administration, and took over the job of managing a machine for our User Experience group back in Boston through terminal services. I built a custom CMS to manage the Lycos Style Guide, and learned how to make connections with databases to power portions of the site.

I was hooked on a drug from Redmond.

My Wired G3 PowerBrick sat in a file cabinet drawer while I fell further down the rabbit hole. The G3 was a cinder block by today’s laptop standards. I didn’t want to lug around an 8-pound back-breaker. It couldn’t even handle the newfound tasks that my made life so much easier. My shiny bluish-silver Vaio was barely over 4 lbs., and it tagged along with me everywhere I went. When it came time to upgrade software, the Windows versions got the attention, while my collection of Mac-based software continued to grow sorely outdated, further taking away any remaining rationale to break my current habit.

Loss of Hope

[thumbnail image: Macintosh PowerBook G4] Toward the end of 2001, I desperately wanted to replace my G3 desktop. The big box generated an unbearably loud hum, and it took up way too much real estate beneath my desk. I debated giving up Mac entirely in exchange for my new addiction. But I couldn’t bear the thought of completely abandoning my previous life. I purchased a gorgeous new PowerBook G4 at wholesale cost from a counselor at CompUSA. I suppose it was an attempt at salvaging my sense of loyalty which was gasping for air. The G4 booted OS 9 by default. But it also had this new thing called OS X that I wasn’t so sure about.

[thumbnail image: original X logo for the OS X] I had long fallen out of Mac circles, and knew nothing about OS X, other than what I had seen at MacWorld. The major OS rebuild seemed rather disappointing to me. All I could think was that it looked a little too sugar-coated for a professional designer. And the screen type was so big. Was Apple compensating for poor anti-aliasing? I didn’t understand all the changes in OS X, and hadn’t yet taken much time to learn my way around a Unix file system.

The darkness was closing in.

Sadly, the G4 saw very little light of day once it was purchased. It sat conveniently out of the way inside a hall closet. I pulled it out now and then to cross-check my stylesheet hacks on Wired News prototypes over the summer. Hardly the full potential of a 667 Mhz G4 processor. But what else did I need it for?


[thumbnail image: flying Windows logo] Around March of 2002, I upgraded to Windows XP Pro. The deal with the dark side was sealed. Finally a stable operating system from Microsoft that possessed plenty of eye appeal. Many of the new features of XP made so much logical sense. Grouping of taskbar buttons, hiding inactive system tray icons, built in support for wireless networking, and common tasks based on folder type. It proved to me that Microsoft had been conducting a lot of user testing and was paying attention to the resulting feedback.

The pusher got smarter.

XP was fast and slick. It made me feel good. It stole some of the UI philosophy from Apple, but didn’t go overboard with decoration. Put XP beside OS X, and purely based on the visuals, I’d pick the former any day, especially considering smaller screens. XP didn’t abuse the screen real estate that OS X carelessly occupied. I could customize the interface in XP by turning off any of the visual effects I found overly gratuitous. I missed that level of control in OS X.

Whenever I pulled the G4 out of the closet, it felt like the OS just got in my way. It didn’t allow me to accomplish a task without concentrating on the awkwardness of the OS itself. By this time, I knew Windows inside and out — how to manipulate it and make it work for me. In OS X, it seemed I was always scrolling to find something. Nothing ever fit on the screen, even though the PowerBook screen was 3 inches larger (and 128 pixels wider) than my Vaio. I had no reason to go back. I was completely comfortable with Windows.


At what point did I realize the problem? This required admitting a problem might actually exist. Was there one? After enough friends and colleagues expressed their surprise and dismay in the depth of my dependency on the Windows environment, I started to wonder.

The first step toward recovery is admitting the problem.

Could such a reliance be harmful? Had I gotten sucked too deep down the hole? It was time to step back and start evaluating. Time to consciously reconsider my dependency and take another look from the outside. I’ve always had intrigue with the new Mac OS, and a fascination that Apple chose to base its underpinnings on open source software. But I hadn’t taken the time to give up what I used to know so well about OS 9.

[cover image: Mac OS X, The Missing Manual, by David Pogue] Last weekend, I took my first two steps and reopened my mind to other possibilities. I bit the bullet and upgraded the G4’s OS to version 10.2. I also picked up a copy of David Pogue’s Mac OS X, The Missing Manual. It’s taking me time to relearn something so entirely foreign. But I’m quickly discovering the reasons behind the changes, and the advantages and power of this new OS.

As I acknowledge the problem with one drug, I’m only attempting to replace it with another. I’m learning how Apple can help temper my dependency on Windows. But I won’t ever be able to escape Windows entirely. It’s ubiquitous. No matter when, or how much I turn back to Mac, I’ll always be a recovering Windows user.